It was a moment Texas basketball fans will never forget; the kind of moment that we will be blessed to see along side tournament promos featuring Bryce Drew, Tyus Edney, and Christian Laettner. A three pointer at the buzzer to win the game in March Madness. Does it get any better than this?
I was present in San Antonio when TJ Ford led the Longhorns to the Final Four, and while the excitement of that weekend was tremendous, it was a two game home set with 25,000 Texas fans easing the Horns to the Final Four. The excitement of those games paled in comparison to last night's euphoria, as Texas survived a furious rally from the pesky Mountaineers of West Virginia to advance to the Regional Finals in Atlanta.
It was especially fitting that senior guard Kenton Paulino hit the game winner. Paulino was an awkward, unproductive freshman on that TJ Ford-led team in 2003. It took a while, but Paulino worked hard and became an invaluable part of this year's squad, leading the team in three point shooting and providing much needed stability in the backcourt. For a player like Paulino, who has no future in the NBA, to hit that kind of shot... It just highlights why Andrew and I love this game as we do.
The game itself was a mirror image of the two teams' first meeting at the beginning of the season. Texas destroyed the Mountaineers on the boards (45-16), controlled the paint, and shot well from the floor. This time around, they took better care of the basketball, though, which I thought would allow Texas to win by a comfortable margin. The Horns only turned the ball over 13 times, a huge improvement over the last meeting, when they lost 24 possessions.
And for a while, it looked as though that prediction would ring true. Texas built a 12 point lead by halftime by taking care of the ball, rebounding well, and defending the perimeter. West Virginia shot only 34% in the first half and Texas was poised to put the game away. But West Virginia deserves credit. They did what they do best. A flash back to yesterday's game preview:
West Virginia went absolutely bonkers in the second half, raining three pointers on the Horns from all over the court. By the eight minutes remaining mark of the second half, the Mountaineers led the Horns by three, 61-58. Texas bounced back, though, scoring seven straight points, controlling the lead all the way down to the final seconds, when Kevin Pittsnoggle battled through a bloody nose to return to the game and hit a game-tying three pointer with just six seconds remaining.
That set the stage for Paulino, who shot his game winner after receiving a pass on the wing from AJ Abrams, who had raced down the court immediately following the West Virginia three pointer. As the shot fell through the rim, the only question was whether Paulino had released it before time expired. As the replay confirmed that he did, Rick Barnes finally let himself celebrate, jumping up and down euphorically before congratulating the defeated Mountaineers.
Some will say that Texas trip to the Final Four was the greatest moment in Texas basketball history, and I will never argue to diminish the importance of that overall accomplishment. But last night's moment, with Kenton Paulino bringing the March Madness to the hearts and souls of Texas basketball fans, blows any other single moment away as the greatest we've ever seen.
I think, now, that we can get on to the game break down. The scene had to be set; the moment appreciated. Thank you, Kenton. Thank you Texas.
The big story from last night, besides the game's events themselves, was the emergence of Mike Williams as a productive player. With Brad Buckman flailing about helplessly on the court, Barnes inserted Williams, and he responded in a big way, eventually earning more minutes than Buckman on the night (20-17). Williams finished with 9 points, 7 rebounds, a block and a steal, bringing energy and hustle to the floor. Buckman hasn't had a good game since February, so this is not a trivial development. The most legitimate criticism of Texas this season was the team's lack of depth. Back in December, we complained that this was a five man team, barely a six if you counted Abrams.
Now, with Williams emergence and Abrams stunning growth as a point guard, Texas is in infinitely better position than they were back then. The best part about Williams late season burst is that he's exactly the kind of body we're going to need to bang with the big and long Tigers of LSU in the Regional Final.
Abrams, meanwhile, has solved Texas' other big problem from December, the lack of a player who can play a true point guard. Abrams was masterful again last night, doling out seven assists, including the game winner to Paulino. He was a bit tentative on his shots, but he didn't let it affect his overall game. Depth is so critical in March, and because Texas' best players have a tendency to disappear at times, the Horns are that much more dangerous because other guys can step in and give productive minutes. Then, in games when your stars play well, you're just that much tougher.
Last night was a tough game for Gibson. He didn't play terribly, but he was affected by West Virginia's tricky trapping defense, never settling comfortably into his shots. He finished 1-for-8 on the night (1-for-6 from three point range), but a lot of the credit goes to the Mountaineers for their strong perimeter defense.
Their strategy to give up the points in the middle worked well for them, as they got what they wanted (trading three pointers for two pointers to stay close), and Texas would have lost if Aldridge and Tucker hadn't been up to the task of taking those points inside. Aldridge was brilliant in the first half, less so in the second half (though still strong), and Tucker was... well, Tucker. He had six turnovers - par for the course - and made his requisite plays where you just shake your head and wonder what he's thinking. But he also made those critical baskets, or grabbed those improbable rebounds, that make him the most uniquely talented player in college hoops. He always manages to be a coach's dream, and nightmare, in the same game. I'm used to it by now, and I love him. We wouldn't be half the team that we are without him.
The opening game in Atlanta saw LSU knock off the mighty Blue Devils of Duke, much to my delight. Back in December, I wrote that Texas was a tough matchup for Duke because we were so athletic. Last night, I was proven both right and wrong. When we lost to Duke in such an ugly manner, I mistakenly concluded that Duke was invulnerable to the criticism that long, athletic teams could beat them. I thought that Reddick was too much. LSU proved that my original thought was actually right. They caught Reddick on a bad shooting night and that was the end for Duke.
I am very, very happy to be wrong. Texas is vulnerable to teams that shoot well, which Duke does; less so to athletic teams, which LSU is. The Tigers greatest strength, their athleticism, is matched by the Horns. Given an equal amount of athleticism, you look to who has more talent, and Texas gets the edge there.
Texas now has the chance to head to the Final Four for the second time in four years. A return trip for seniors Paulino and Buckman would cap their successful careers, and looking at the matchup, I like Texas' chances. The key to Saturday's game, unlike last night's, will be the backcourt. While West Virginia was soft in the middle, LSU will be soft on the edges. Aldridge and the front court will have far fewer chances to score on the big and physical LSU forwards, but the guards will have plenty of open looks and chances to penetrate from the outside.
In short: watch Daniel Gibson closely. He'll be the key to Texas' chances on Saturday. LSU is the ideal team for Gibson to excel against. And I think he will. After watching last night's action, I won't discount anyone or anything. But the stars seem aligned. I like what I see and I like Texas to win. Horns over the Tigers, and on to Indy, 74-72.